I threw my first divorce party in 2003. My closest friend had been jilted by her fiance – who had abruptly gone back to his ex-wife – and she was a mess. I’d read about a breakup party in an advice column and decided it could be a fun way to let her know that she was loved and supported.
We made the whole event about heat: we wanted to make her feel hot and sexy again. We had spicy food, brought in a salsa teacher and lit a bonfire. She burnt her ex’s most prized hunting trophy on it: the deer head that hung above their bed. It was cathartic, and the first time she had laughed in a long time.
The party was so successful at getting her out of a funk that I started thinking that having an event after a divorce or breakup could be hugely beneficial in helping other people to get past their pain.
I set to work on The Divorce Party Handbook, with chapters on themes, planning and etiquette (like, never invite children and don’t abandon your friend afterwards).
People started asking who could plan an event for them. Even in southern California where there is a party for everything, no one was doing this, so I started my business as a divorce party planner. I’m originally from Blackpool but I moved here when I was 19.
It began slowly but I built a stable of suppliers and calls started coming. That was 14 years ago and I’ve done about 200 parties since. Some have a big blowout, others are more emotional. There are often tears and always something symbolic. It’s important to keep some ritual and meaning.
Parties have cost from $5,000 (£3,800) to $25,000 (£19,300). The most expensive was a luxury boat for 60 people, down the coast to Mexico. At the end, my client threw her wedding ring into the ocean. Many burn a veil or wedding photo on a bonfire. To see something that was once so lovely shrivel up really taps into something primitive.
One of my favourites had a golf theme. The woman was devastated to find her husband had been having an affair when he said he was teeing off, so the guests came in golf gear; we hired an instructor, swung at balls with the husband’s name on them and roasted food on golf club spits. She had been humiliated, but taking control and allowing herself to laugh again helped restore her self-respect.
One client wanted a funeral theme and buried her ring; another had never been on a rollercoaster, so that was a great way for her to symbolise letting go.
All of our big life transitions – birth, marriage, death – have a ceremony or ritual. Until recently, there was nothing for divorce. Some people send me hate mail, saying it is in bad taste or hurts the sanctity of marriage. They’re entitled to their opinion, but I think the process is healthy. People can feel alone and stigmatised, and there can be a long legal process. A party counterbalances that by allowing you to deal with the emotional side. One night doesn’t fix your problems, but it’s a big step forward.
My clients are mostly women over 30. It tends to be sisters or friends who come to me, but I always involve the divorcee in the process. I learned that early on, when a surprise party fell flat. There have been a couple of guys, but I think men tend to do their own thing and don’t seem to need the display of support the way women do.
I went through a very undramatic divorce, myself, five years ago. It helped me understand my clients better but, curiously, I didn’t throw a party. I think it answers a need more when the breakup has been a shock to someone or is out of their control. The idea has travelled around the world now. I have heard of events in Saudi Arabia and India.
The parties have become very personal to me. The women share so much and I feel I’ve been through the fire with them and come out the other side. Sometimes literally.